DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The France family love affair with racing began when Bill France was a teen willing to skip school to catch events in suburban Washington, D.C. He taught himself mechanics, even tried racing a bit himself.
He was supposed to be a businessman, perhaps follow his father into banking. Instead, France opened a garage, got married and had a son, Bill Jr., then packed up his car in the early 1930s and headed South to escape the East Coast winters.
“My Dad used to say he moved to Florida to get out of the weather in Washington; he always said, ‘I got tired of shoveling snow,’” Jim France, his youngest son, told The Associated Press. "He likes to say that the car broke down in Daytona. He was a mechanic. If it had broke down, he’d have fixed it and gone on down to Miami if that’s where he wanted to be.”
Nope, France had his sights set on Daytona Beach from the beginning. It was the place to be. Still is.
Bootleggers and mechanics, car enthusiasts and good ol’ boys looking for a good time, they all showed up at the beach to race their stock cars. In 1927, the “world famous Daytona Beach” hosted the world land speed record, 203.79 miles per hour (327.97 kilometres per hour) set by Major Henry Segrave in a Sunbeam Mystery.
This was paradise for a young France, who worked at a car dealership as a mechanic and eventually opened a service station on Main Street. He participated in racing as a promoter and grew his business and his family. There was no racing during World War II, and France went to work at the Daytona boatyards building submarine chasers.
When the war ended, racing resumed and France wanted something official, bothered by the question: What kind of championship were the racers chasing?
France gathered the big players from the local racing scene at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach for the pivotal Feb. 21, 1948, meeting that officially created the National Association for Stock Car Racing, a series that grew into the most popular form of motorsports in U.S. history.
NASCAR now is celebrating its 75th anniversary, starting with Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500, and France — a member of NASCAR’s first Hall of Fame class — is regarded as one of the most pivotal figures in domestic racing history long after his death in 1992.
It started small – summers were spent in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, running events at Bowman-Gray Stadium, with France’s wife ensuring the books remained balanced and the racers got paid. It’s now an entire ecosystem that spans generations, and NASCAR is the only thing they’ve ever known.
“When I was a kid, my dad used to be gone all the time, and I didn’t really understand,” Len Wood, son of Hall of Famer Glenn Wood, told The AP. “He would come home from Daytona with trophies and grapefruits and oranges. Well, where’s he been? They said he’d been racing.”
Len and his brother Eddie now run The Wood Brothers Racing team, which entered its first race in 1953. The team has always competed with the Ford badge. The Woods have never left Stuart, Virginia, just a short drive from historic Martinsville Speedway, and nobody has any idea what they’d do if not for NASCAR. The brothers got paid $1 an hour to sweep the shop as kids; Eddie spent nine months washing dishes at a hospital, but back to NASCAR he returned.
“We’re in our 73rd year, still with the France family, still getting goosebumps at the start of every race," Len Wood said. "It’s a complete life. We know nothing else.”
NASCAR, as it grew beyond the beach and exploded in popularity, now races on 38 weekends from upstate New York to California. The bulk of the competitors are based in North Carolina, a state full of universities offering motorsports management or engineering programs tailored for racing.
NASCAR's footprint has expanded in North Carolina to two offices and its glistening NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach is LEED Gold certified with a balcony view inside of Daytona International Speedway.
The Daytona offices are part of “One Daytona” a 390,000-square foot entertainment and restaurant space in which NASCAR, primarily behind France granddaughter Lesa France Kennedy, donated $107 million to the attraction that has revitalized the beach town.
One Daytona sits across from the famous speedway, which the France family also built and then spent $400 million on a renovation completed in 2016. All 105,000 seats for Sunday’s race have been sold.
“I tend to think, ‘No, the France family is not appreciated,’ but I think part of that is their style,” said Steve Phelps, just the third non-France family member to serve as NASCAR president in 75 years.
“They are not flashy. They are not headline grabbers. But if you look at the history of what they have done for Daytona Beach, and what they have done for motorsports, they keep it moving. They doubled down on this sport in 2018 when they didn’t have to.”
Back then, NASCAR was led by absentee CEO Brian France, who succeeded his father, the late Bill France Jr., and is the grandson of NASCAR’s founder. Lesa France Kennedy, his sister, ran International Speedway Corp., the arm of the family that owned racetracks.
Few were happy with Brian France’s leadership style, and when he was arrested for driving under the influence in 2018, his family leaned in rather than stepping out of NASCAR.
The sport is now run by Jim France – “Jimmy” to those who have been around long enough. Born in 1944, NASCAR has existed since Jim France was four.
He replaced his nephew as CEO in August 2018, and Lesa France Kennedy merged ISC into NASCAR. Phelps said NASCAR would not have otherwise withstood the pandemic.
Ben Kennedy, Lesa’s 31-year-old son and the great-grandson of NASCAR’s founder, i s now being groomed to lead the company. He’s the architect of overhauled recent Cup schedules, took the exhibition Busch Light preseason Clash to the Coliseum in Los Angeles, and this year hopes to pull off NASCAR’s first street course race when the stock cars go to downtown Chicago.
But first comes the Daytona 500, the 65th running of “The Great American Race” and NASCAR's biggest event of the year. It's a cultural phenomenon that took Ben Kennedy time to understand.
“I didn't have the appreciation for where that went nationally, or even globally," he told AP. "But here we are and over 100,000 people come here every February. It was just what we knew. When it really is put into perspective is when someone comes to a race for the first time. And you walk them around and you show them as much as you can, and the expression on their face is just amazing. I think sometimes we take it for granted what this all is because it's all we've ever known. But it really is something special.”
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